Monday, December 17, 2012

The Dark Side of Happiness

Recently my attention has been drawn repeatedly to the (disconcerting and even unpleasant) reality (1) that human beings do not understand why things happen and (2) that individual recipes for happiness are not universal.

(1) Life is full of problems.  This appears universal (to the animal world, not just the human species), and so as observers we slip easily into the habit of talking about it as something singular: we point to it in the aggregate with words like evil or the human condition.

Confronted on a daily basis with evil (the human condition), we naturally react.  There are as many reactions as there are individuals, but two common reactions are anger and sorrow.  These emotions drive us to move (an emotion is what propels us to act in response to stimuli, breaking the trance that holds Buridan's ass forever between water and food).  Our motion takes many shapes, too numerous and different to define (e.g. lashing out in anger or scorn, or reaching out in sorrow or pity).  We cannot help this (our reaction), though we can with effort learn to control it a little bit (muting reactions so that we don't express them in ways we find unsettling).

Life does not wait for our reactions, however.  It goes on.  More importantly, it does not depend on our reactions.  We don't get this.  We think that we can make things happen the way we want them to.  We think that if we do the right dance, performing each step perfectly, the universe will give us release from our troubles (a release that we refer to with words like happiness).  Some of us base our entire outlook on life around the idea that we can make our own happiness, that we can defeat evil (the human condition) and avoid the suffering that it brings.  This attitude is problematic when we apply it to ourselves (for reasons I hope to get into in a moment).  It is disastrous when applied to others.

What I am trying to say will make more sense if I give you an analogy to illustrate it.  Think of the fly that charges against a closed window repeatedly, doing its best to escape the stifling environment of the house for the great outdoors (where it can end its brief existence properly, experiencing whatever it is that flies have developed to regard as happiness over the course of their evolution).  Sometimes, the window that the fly is bumping into is closed, and it remains closed.  In these cases, unless some factor intervenes (e.g. a human with a flyswatter), the fly that charges the window will eventually wear itself out, give up the ghost, and fall dead on the windowsill.  From the perspective of a fly, that death is almost certainly evil.  But not all flies charge the same window.  What happens when the window is open a crack (or more)?  Under these circumstances, the fly that charges it may eventually get out (and find happiness in its release from prison).  Now, imagine that the second fly (whose window happened to be cracked open) somehow finds itself able to communicate with the first.  Naturally, it will tell the first fly that happiness depends on pursuing the ritual that it used to escape from the prison that both of them experience.

"Keep charging the window!" it will say. "That is how you get out!"

The first fly may agree or not.  Being a fly, it is likely to agree: flying against the window is what comes naturally for it.  But the promise of happiness that seems so certain to the second fly is really anything but.  Hard as this is to understand or accept, the condition of happiness lies outside the power of the individual organism (whether we talking about flies or human beings, as far as I can tell).  Things happen to us, things that have consequences beyond our power to control, no matter how we may react.  I could do anything, but I am not going to change the fact that I was born at a particular time to particular parents. I am always determined by more than just my next emotion, and not everything that determines me is under my control.  I cannot control what other people do.  I cannot control the weather.  I cannot always even control myself (when I react involuntarily or lose consciousness or capability owing to external factors like poisonous gas, to give one example that occurs to me right now).  Even if I do everything in my power to secure what looks like happiness to me ("charging against the window" with all my might and main), that happiness remains fundamentally and irrevocably dependent on factors beyond my control (the window has to be open).  As a human being, I do have more resources than the fly.  I can think.  I can reason (using the experience of others to guide mine).  But I cannot control historical outcomes, and my lack of control is not momentary or fixable (with the right regimen).  There is no "right" way for a fly to charge a window; when the charging fly fails to escape, it is not because its flight was deficient in any way.  It simply did what flies do, did it well even, and did not get lucky.  Sometimes that is what happens.

(2) Because of all the foregoing, success can actually be a bad thing for understanding (even if it is good for happiness).  The fly that succeeds has no patience for its friend that doesn't.  It doesn't understand that the happiness which it found through charging the window isn't universal.  This happens all the time in human life.  Somebody makes a lucky bet in the market.  Somebody gets a nice job.  Somebody stumbles into very good health.  Somebody has really good relationships with friends and family.  And, inevitably, somebody starts telling other people how to be happy. 

"If you live the way I do, then you will be happy!  Just make this bet (not that one).  Go for this job (not that one).  Read this book (not that one).  Do this exercise (not that one).  Say these words (not those ones)."  And so on.

But life doesn't work like this.  My happiness is not yours.  I cannot tell you what makes you happy, what will make you happy, because I cannot know that.  If I could tell you, the answer would almost certainly reveal that happiness exists beyond human control.

("Well, you need to be born to good parents in perfect health, live your long life free of troubles that you can handle without breaking down, avoid the foods and climates that make you ill, and remember to pass this advice along to others--for a small fee, if you like!")

I advise all people to avoid being hit by cars.  I think that getting hit by a car would be unhappy.  But some people are going to be hit by cars, no matter what they or anyone else does (and if we somehow lose all access to cars, then they will die by some other accidental means).  What is happiness for them?  The good news is that many of them do discover happiness.  The bad news is that they must always find it for themselves.  You cannot make others happy. 

You especially cannot make others happy when you do not understand how they are miserable.  Misery and happiness are really just two words for the same thing in human experience (our attachment to ourselves and those around us, our expectations for life).  We call it misery when we don't like it, happiness when we do.  But it is in itself neither miserable nor happy, neither evil nor good.  Flies crash into windows because that is what flies do, pure and simple.  It does no good for the fly who made it out to lecture the fly who hasn't ("Charge harder! Have more faith! Power through it!").  It may be comforting to think that we make our own destiny, that we control where we end up and how, but that does not make it true.  It is certainly comforting to think that we can help those around us, but when we actually attempt this, it becomes clear pretty quick that "helping" is much more about "compassion" (literally "shared suffering") than it is about anything else (e.g. "happiness").  You can hold someone's hand and say that you are sorry that she feels bad.  You cannot make her feel better.  You don't have what it takes.  She doesn't have it, either (at least not all to herself, under her control).  If she is lucky, then she will stumble across it someday (when the window happens to be open). 

When it comes to explaining and/or creating happiness, much moral advice is worse than useless.  It merely makes "failed" people feel worse (they already feel bad).  It makes them feel helpless instead of hopeful (since the easy solutions that work so well for others don't work for them: if the window is closed, it doesn't matter how a fly charges it).  It closes them to new solutions rather than opening them (since they see how the obvious ones really, really don't work: this causes them to lose hope altogether sometimes).  It makes them feel like irredeemable pariahs (all their friends made it through the window: why are they so dumb? so lazy? so whatever that they cannot power through the glass in front of them the way others have?).

So there we are.  Happiness is not universal.  It is not even securely happy (since it is at root the same thing as misery: happiness is what we call life when we like it; misery is what we call it when we don't; none of us likes life all the time).  It is not verbally communicable.  It cannot be handed down in easy recipes.  The most we can do for those we love when they are miserable is "mourn with those who mourn" and hope that they stumble across the bright side of misery eventually.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Brujo Encadenado

Robert M. Pirsig. Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. New York: Bantam, 1992.  ISBN: 0553299611.

This book is as interesting (to me) as Pirsig's other one, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Where the earlier book sees reality existing outside our ability to understand it, this one talks about different ways that we respond to our historical inability to grasp reality wholly.  The earlier book sees an indefinite (and humanly undefinable) quality as the foundation of reality: the word quality points toward the reality that is too big to understand, too irregular and dynamic to be contained by our limited intelligence.  The second book talks about different manifestations of this quality in human life.

According to Pirsig, quality as we experience it comes in two kinds: (1) static quality and (2) dynamic quality.  Lila is an extended portrait of these two different kinds of quality. 

(1) Static quality comes in four kinds: (i) inorganic static quality; (ii) biological static quality; (iii) social quality; (iv) intellectual quality.  Life exists as different patterns of these kinds of quality that are related.  Inorganic molecules exist in static patterns that enable static patterns of biological life, which rely on them without being determined by them (the same way computer languages rely on electronic circuits: the circuits make the languages possible, but you could not predict the particular historical development of the languages from the existence of the circuits).  Biological patterns exist in static patterns that enable static patterns of social life, which rely on biology without being determined by it (the same way computer software applications rely on programming languages: the languages make the applications possible, but you could not predict the particular historical developments of the applications from the languages).  Finally, social patterns exist in static patterns that enable static intellectual patterns, which rely on society without being determined by it (the same way a novel in a word-processing application relies on that software to exist without being deducible from it: my knowledge that OpenOffice exists does not tell me what novel you may be using it to write right now).

(2) Dynamic quality is the wildcard, the irregularity that makes quality impossible for us to understand (i.e. the simple quality that Pirsig talks about in his first book).  Dynamic quality is rebellious: for some reason, inorganic molecules decide to work against forces of natural decay in the universe; they join together in ways that allow biological life to exist (against expectations).  Then, for some reason, biological life works against the restrictions of physical reality, fighting against forces of decay to create more and more complex organisms that challenge physical laws (like gravity: all organisms move--crawling, walking, or flying in defiance of the forces pulling them down).  On top of this, organisms come together (for some unknown reason) and create social conventions, taking the biological value known as sex (for example) and overlaying it with rules known as marriage.  Finally, human beings (and maybe other living things too) reflect rationally on the existence of social norms (like marriage) and try to make these rational (e.g. extending the benefits of marriage to different kinds of people who merit them, say homosexuals or people of a different race or creed than the dominant one in a particular culture).  Dynamic quality always bucks the regular systems of static quality, challenging the norms that hold these systems together.  It occasions the transformation of static order, altering the nature of a static system radically and unpredictably.

At one point in the book, the author recounts an anecdote from the modern history of the Zuni people in North America.  In a particular Zuni community, there was an odd man who flouted social norms, peeping in windows without talking to his fellow tribesmen.  The Zuni call such people witches (brujos in Spanish: Pirsig prefers the Spanish term because it carries less problematic baggage than the English witch).  One day, he got drunk and told the local authorities (priests) that they would never control him.  They arrested him and hung him up by his thumbs.  He sent for local Western authorities (off the reservation), who rescued him (and took him to the hospital).  Afterwards, the priests who had disciplined him resigned their authority in the community, and the witch became the community leader.  He ended up leading the Zuni into a new kind of social order, one in which relations with the Westerners was more cordial and open (in part because he made a point of meeting regularly with outsiders and sharing Zuni stories with them).  Western anthropologists had a hard time explaining this event because they wanted to make the brujo a conventional leader in his society.  They tried to understand his rise to prominence in Zuni terms, seeing it as a natural event inside the traditional Zuni culture.  From Pirsig's point of view, this is the wrong approach, precisely because the brujo's power came from outside the Zuni.  He was not traditional.  He was dynamic, innovative, a wild card.  This is why the priests, guardians of traditional Zuni culture, attempted to suppress him.  He represented a dynamic threat to the static quality of their society.

Every social order produces outcasts, people on the fringes who don't exactly belong.  These people can be dangerous.  They represent a challenge to the stability of static quality (which provides some benefits: order, predictability, regularity).  But they are not always dangerous.  No static state is ever perfect.  Each lacks something.  Each is maladapted in some respect.  The outsiders can help here.  Given the chance, they can transform the static quality of an established community so that it survives as circumstances around it alter.  The old Zuni priests were less adept in preserving their society from outside influence.  The brujo became a leader because he was better at dealing with people and culture outside Zuni.  He used his position as an outsider to make the position of the Zuni people safer than it was, insuring the survival of Zuni better than the priests could by changing the nature of the community (in ways that the priests found utterly abhorrent).

I confess I sometimes feel like a Mormon brujo.  While I have no intention of being a leader, I do value certain things in Mormon culture (the focus on friends and family, the commandment that every man seek his or her own divine revelation, the drive for a community that is something more than just abstract economics seeking to amass the most material wealth possible).  I have always valued these things.  I thought the institutional church valued them the same way I did.  Even when my personal position on certain matters differed from positions held by institutional leaders, I thought we were on the same team, interested in pursuing the same overarching goals.  To some extent, I think we still are.  But I think that many Mormon priesthood leaders have much less sympathy for me than I once believed.  I think they are barely willing that people such as I exist, provided we keep our mouths shut and defer to their judgment without protest (however rational or respectful).  I don't think they should give in to us.  I don't think the church would be better led if they all abdicated and handed power over to folk of the fringe, such as I have been most of my life.  But I wish there was a place for us in Mormon culture, a place for modern backsliders like Sterling McMurrin, who believe in the gospel even if they insist on misunderstanding it (from the point of view of someone like Joseph Fielding Smith or Bruce R. McConkie).  If that place had existed, then I might still be an active Mormon today.  But I am not really the Zuni brujo.  I am not willing to be hung by the thumbs to save the community.  Forced to choose between saving myself and saving Mormonism, I admit I picked me.  No hard feelings, I hope.

In Pirsig's book, he talks about the twentieth century as a war between social quality (the Victorianism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the West, especially the USA) and intellectual quality (the drive to make society rational).  He takes the side of intellectual quality against social, arguing that it is more moral for an idea to destroy society than for society to destroy an idea.  I confess I am not convinced he is right.  To me, it seems that ideas are too unpredictable and dangerous to merit that kind of respect.  But I do wish that we could find better ways in the USA of accommodating outsiders (including intellectuals) who want to participate in society in a positive way without crucifying themselves in the process.  While I do not fight with Pirsig in the war, I do think that the war is there, and I do not think we are fighting it in the best manner possible.  There are better ways to deal with me than forcing me to become a liar (heretic) or an apostate (outcast).  Or maybe I just wish there were.  Sometimes, life is just really tough (a problem without happy solution). 

Friday, November 9, 2012

My American Dream

I have found myself participating in several political conversations recently.  What follows is a summary of my rumination on those conversations.

Neither political party has effectively addressed the reality that America must collectively and individually accept responsibility for national insolvency: it is not the other guy's fault; it is your fault, and mine--ours. And the solution requires that all of us tighten our belts (including politicians: it may be peanuts when measured against the $16 trillion we are in the hole, but why do former Presidents make ~$240,000 per annum guaranteed and adjusted for inflation as long as they live? where is the panache in pretending that all problems are somebody else's fault and then stuffing your face on the public dime, using funds that don't exist?).

We are all going to lose jobs and/or make a lot less. We can come down gradually, trying to put some real faith back into our monetary system (which is currently jacked beyond easy repair)--or we can wait for another Black Tuesday to take us down for the Great Depression 2.0 (which is still coming regardless of who won the recent elections: Republicans and Democrats both did this to us, and they did it because we asked them to; they listened to the public and did their best to give it what it wanted).

The biggest problem I have with all this is the inability politicians on both sides seem to have when it comes to admitting their own mistakes. Instead of owning those mistakes, they pass the buck to their opponents and come up with empty plans that all boil down to more of the same: "We'll simply do what we've always done, but I will be in charge, so it will work!" As if unserviceable debt were somehow OK under a Republican (like W) but not under a Democrat (Barack)--or vice versa. Are we trying to get back to the Reagan years or the Clinton years? In either event, we are chasing a chimera, and the sooner we recognize this and snap out of it, the easier our return to the current reality will be. Clinton and Reagan aren't coming back. They weren't gods. They made some very human mistakes. Their policies do not promise the utopia that partisans imagine--no matter how many doors you knock on, how much "spirit" or "hope" you have, etc. Chasing their shadow is a distraction from our real problem, which is that as a nation we are currently living in a fantasy world where we can all have our cake and eat it, too.

Wall Street is not too big to fail. It never was, and it never will be. America is not too big to fail: we've proven it before (when we did fail and had to work hard to recover), and we are in the process of proving it again. I wish politicians and the people they represent would man up and take some freaking responsibility. Maybe I am not personally wholly responsible for all the crap going on right now, but I am at least partially to blame. I support (with patronage) businesses and companies whose practices are unsustainable. I am part of the fragility inherent in a large global society--the fragility that means that I could be out of a job tomorrow (at least I am not living in a nation where that means sudden death, in the literal sense: here I have a chance to recover, a chance that I should take sooner rather than later if I want the transition to be smooth). Every day, we all make bets with the universe. And we all lose sometimes. The key is not to bet more than you are willing (and able) to lose. You have to take responsibility for yourself, rather than looking for somebody else (e.g. Satan, the other political party, "illegal" immigrants, gay people, rednecks, religious nutjobs, racists, etc.). We are all just human beings, dumb human beings who make mistakes (no matter who is leading us: our leaders are human, too).

If the American dream is about other people making you happy, then it is an impossible fantasy (no matter who you are, how you vote, or who wins any election). If you want your dreams to be real, then you have to dream something that might be real (as the really good dreamers in our history have consistently done: where are they now? why do they never get elected to public office? maybe because we don't appreciate them until after they are dead?). Maybe we need somebody to tell us honestly what we really look like, as a people. Maybe we don't look much like the kind of heroes we seem to expect our politicians to be. Maybe we shouldn't expect more of them than we do of ourselves. Maybe we should set our personal standards a bit higher. Change and hope don't come from other people. The way is not in heaven, not through election, not in the system outside you: the way is in the depths of your heart, yours and mine. We need to go there and face what we see (the way some of us already do, some of us who are not winning or losing elections, some of us who are too busy suffering to care about finding somebody else to blame).

In offering these reflections, I am not putting myself forward as the ideal American. I personally at this time see myself as more part of the problem than the solution. I am not in a position to save myself and my family. I have not put myself in that position. I have kept my head down and done what I was told, and I rely on other people a lot, probably too much. Mitt Romney was right to call me parasite, I guess I am saying; where he is wrong is in supposing that he escapes the same blame. He is playing the game he was born into, just like I am, and (as far as I can tell) losing it the same way (even though he was born with a better hand). We are all in this together, and we all (or most of us, anyway) suck (at least some of the time). We need to accept this, I think, and recognize that our suckiness has and will have consequences that will make our lives and our children's lives different than they would have been otherwise. 

I will not tell my kids that their lives will be better than mine. I don't believe that. I think it is wrong to set people up with false expectations, to tell them that someone else will look out for them always, that there exists a path to meaningful happiness that is not paved with their own blood, sweat, and tears--blood, sweat, and tears that might ultimately yield nothing (or at least, nothing like what they expect when they set foot on the path). There are no guarantees. There is no sure hope. I wish politicians would just say that (tell us the truth), and then do their best to let us see how they are making bets with our best interests--bets that might fail, bets against which we personally need to take out insurance, on our own: no program can take all the risk and make it disappear, no matter who runs it.  God himself could not redeem this people, or if he could, then he almost certainly will not, if history is any indicator: he will sit back and let things be however they turn out.   

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Theology of a Mormon Christian Atheist

A reflection on my faith in God, past and present, and a response to missionaries who try to recruit me to their faith.

Investigating the history of early Christianity did much to reshape completely the way I think about religion (all religion). I began my research believing that the Great Apostasy was historical, that there was a primitive church of Christ identifiable in history whose form was somehow perverted between 30-33 AD and 1820. When I read people like Martin Luther calling for a return to primitive Christianity, I thought they were speaking historically (as I think they often meant to, though neither they nor Joseph Smith ever really separated history from theology as much as moderns do). But the more I learned about early Christianity and the branches of the faith that survived to the present (and those that died), the less my original narrative made any sense. Today, I think the Great Apostasy is just the Mormon version of a widespread early Protestant delusion (that there was a unitary primitive Christian church and that our denomination represents its only or at least its most legitimate successor).

Paradoxically, I find myself agreeing with G. K. Chesterton, who called the Reformation an atheist movement. I see where he was wrong (not all Protestants are atheists), but for me (and many people I know, Mormon and not) he was right. Taking faith away from God (a mystery outside time and space) and putting it in history (specific events that happened or didn’t) and historical things (e.g. the Bible) leads people like me inevitably to atheism (when we read the holy books and the history and discover incoherence and human vanity masquerading as divine certainty all over the place).

I am not against God. I rather think I am for him, insofar as he represents good things about humanity. But when he represents pieces of humanity that I find abhorrent, I cannot support that (e.g. most of the OT, and even many sentiments in the New: the only books that I consistently read with enjoyment are Ecclesiastes, the Gospels, and James). The repeated claim that someone understands God better than someone else I find historically extremely problematic, since it is traditionally advanced in order to make one person subject (in ways that I find immoral) to another. Also, I don’t see the hand of God in history. A Deist god (the Platonic demiurge who sets the world going and then steps back to let it unwind ad libitum) I might admit as a possibility, but the problem of evil appears in my mind too large and glaring to be undone by the reassurance that poor children dying in agony as a result of natural disasters (leaving aside manmade ones for the moment) will be rewarded in another life. Why would a personal, loving God send tsunamis or tse-tse flies to torture small children, too little and ignorant to have done anything to warrant that kind of punishment? I cannot answer, and try as I might I don’t see God providing one in history. (All history provides is theologians telling Job to quit whining and consider that he is an idiot to trust his eyes. I don’t dispute that I am an idiot, or that my eyes can play tricks, but that doesn’t actually make life better--for me or the kids dying out there. I have spent years asking God, “Where is the pavilion covering thy hiding place?” and the only answer I get is that it is everywhere, everywhere and nowhere.)

I will confess too that I prefer models of divinity which make it less powerful (and/or less good), since these seem more like reality to me. I actually like the Mormon god(s) more than some versions of the Abrahamic one (worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims), precisely because he is not (at least not necessarily) all-powerful, all-knowing, and the rest of it.  He is just a being like us, only at some remove. (Maybe he doesn’t send the tsunamis and tse-tse flies. Maybe he would block them if he could.) I like “pagan” gods (who like the universe are sometimes just dicks: Apollo gets mad for no real reason and starts killing people because he can, just like the tse-tse flies). But I also like the idea of God as something ineffable and impossibly remote (the reality outside our limited ability to understand or express): I just don’t see this reality as necessarily kind or cruel. Like the world, it is simply there, giving some of us sunshine and others tsunamis (kind of like Zeus reaching into his two jars and tossing blessings and curses at random on everybody).

The more I have interacted with believers and non-believers in all kinds of different traditions, the less I believe in the utility of “missionary work” (at least as it exists in most traditions historically). There is a place for sharing with others. We can help each other, and we can talk about the thoughts and practices that give our individual lives meaning, but it is presumptive and wrong-headed to insist that others come around to our ways and leave their own (against their will). There is nothing inherently superior in any historical religion, nothing that makes it objectively better for all people everywhere than whatever other religion they happen to be practicing at the moment. There are superior people, people who practice their religion better than other people, but their superiority is not a matter of transferrable doctrine or ritual but something integral to themselves, an expression of their individually outstanding moral character. We can learn from these people. We can respect them. But real learning and respect is not about wearing the clothes they wear, saying the prayers they say, believing the doctrines they believe, etc. It is about cultivating our own moral excellence, looking into the depths of our own spirit and bringing out the best aspects of the humanity that we find there. That humanity is not all-knowing or all-powerful or anything similar. It is weak. It makes mistakes. But it can learn from those mistakes. It can be kind as well as cruel. It can repent. It can find and cultivate all kinds of beauty in the strangest places. I believe in it. I believe in people, even if I find our gods mostly fictions (some more infantile than others, but in the end we are all just children playing in the sand, building castles that the tide washes away the way it always has).

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Taming Human Nature

This morning a vivid image came to my head as I was walking home in the rain after dropping my boys off at preschool.

Imagine that pleasure and pain are the same thing: emotion.  Now imagine that your soul is a nice little valley, and emotion is a large river running through it (providing fresh water, fish and other wildlife, hydropower, etc.).  Naturally, the nature of the river Emotion is going to vary over time.  Sometimes, when the winter snows melt or heavy rains fall, the river will become rough and turgid, rising up and flooding the valley of Soul with dark water.  It will destroy things.  Other times it will be smooth, clear, and peaceful.  It will create things.

Human nature is to observe things and react.  We see the river Emotion.  We observe how it changes over time, and we naturally want to minimize the harm its flooding causes and maximize the good that comes from its calm.  For some of us, this means building a giant dam to hold it back (and maybe release some of its energy in a controlled fashion to accomplish some specific tasks, like creating energy for the community and washing out wastes from the artificial lake created by the dam).  There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, nothing at all.  But not all rivers are easily dammable (because nature makes each valley unique), and sometimes damming brings unexpected consequences (drastically altering the environment in the soul valley in ways that might be worse for its health than some seasonal flooding).

In my valley of Soul, I built the strongest dam I could come up with.  I followed the best blueprints I could find to construct a wall that would tame the river Emotion completely and indefinitely.  But my river was not one of those easy to dam.  The artificial lake I created became a breeding ground for bad things, anxieties that festered and spread like noxious algae, poisoning the atmosphere of my little soul valley.  Then, to make matters worse, my perfect dam began to leak.  At first, the leaks were small and manageable: all I needed to clean them up were a few Dutch boys with some basic engineering skills.  But as time progressed, the viability of this maintenance crew proved less and less, until one day, the dam broke, and my valley was hit with the flood of the century.

The flood utterly destroyed my old dam, along with many of the improvements and opportunities that that dam afforded.  Because of this experience, I was obliged to rethink everything I thought I knew about soul valleys (mine in particular) and dams.  I went back to the drawing board, with a new team of engineers, since my Dutch boys had no clue what had happened or what to do about it (other than rebuild the old dam and hope that the recent flood was simply a fluke).  As I rethought things and consulted with new engineers, I learned many things about the nature of soul valleys and emotional rivers (my own and those elsewhere in universe of humanity).

Meanwhile, my valley began to recover from the massive flooding.  Life returned to an equilibrium.  Time passed, and I still had not replaced the old dam.  I had spent years in terror of what would happen to me without the protection of that dam, of the seasonal flooding that some said would utterly destroy life in my valley.  As it turned out, the seasonal floods were nothing compared to the collapse of the dam: my valley recovered nicely from them.  In fact, they were actually kind of pleasant, a much tamer version of the wild water that destroyed the dam.  Also, I realized that the environment was much better without that great stagnant lake of fear around, the lake whose black darkness the dam had created and then vomited all over my valley of Soul.  Why remake that lake, I wondered to myself?

Everything I heard from the engineers convinced me that my valley was always going to be flooded at one time or another, and it seemed to me that regular seasonal floods were much easier to manage (and much more pleasant) than occasional tsunamis.  The deciding factor in my decision not to rebuild the dam was how lovely life without the lake was, though.  Some people like lakes.  Some lakes are really quite likable.  But mine wasn't.  I did not like it.  Why rebuild something unnecessary and unpleasant?  People who like artificial lakes in their soul valleys are always telling me how much fun they have in them, how they make so many nice and convenient things possible (advanced hydropower, irrigation, fishing, water-skiing), and I don't deny that.  But my lake was not like that (or perhaps better, was not just that).  It was also a home for the Loch Ness Monster, whom I am very glad to be rid of.

People who want absolute control over their valley of Soul see me as backwards, chaotic, primitive, and uncivilized because I have not dammed the river Emotion.  I let her follow her natural currents.  When she floods, I am flooded.  When she dries up, I am dry.  It is not always easy or pleasant.  But neither was having a dam.  Every choice we make in dealing with Emotion will necessarily involve both pleasure and pain.  Every valley is different, with different inhabitants who value different things (and have different traditions, different types of culture that allow them to live in the unique habitat nature has given them).  In my valley, we live better with natural rhythms, and no dam.  We aren't out to dynamite your dam, at all, but we aren't going to build one for ourselves, either.  We know what it will do to our valley.  We have seen it, and we did not like it.  Much as you like dams (in your valley), we dislike them more (in our valley: we like them fine in yours, if you want them there).  Much as you hate seasonal floods (in your valley), we like them more (in ours, where they are part of the rhythm that gives our life shape and meaning: we need them for the same reason that you need dams).

Recently a number of people have reached out to me, offering to help me build dams (or at least attend meetings where teams of Dutch boys tell us how to make the sort of dam that once graced my valley).  Much as I appreciate the offer, I really don't need a dam (certainly not one like that), and I am not really interested in spending a lot of time discussing the proper design for something that is useless to me.  (One does not go to study with a master trumpeter if one wishes to learn the violin.  As beautifully as you might play the trumpet, it is not my instrument, and I am not going to spend hours learning it, though I am happy to listen to you play sometimes.)  To quote a venerable old book, your love and interest are much appreciated, but I would be at Jerusalem.  

Friday, September 28, 2012


It occurred to me today that happiness is not something definite or concrete.  It is a method of walking, not a particular trail (marked with signposts that all can follow to a single destination).  For much of my life, I was obsessed with finding the right trail, when what really mattered was not where I walked, but how.

This reminds me of the famous song from Facundo Cabral, and of course the great poem by Antonio Machado ("Proverbios y cantares XXIX," Campos de Castilla, pub. 1912):

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino, y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino,
sino estelas en la mar.

Thinking these thoughts and reading this poem reminds me that I really want to walk the Camino de Santiago one day.  That for me would be a path of great happiness.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Enlightened Hedonism?

Some friends recently decided to end their marriage (amicably), after discussing (in a public forum) the paradox of choice (the more choices we have, the more dissatisfied we become with any single choice).  One of my friends remarked that for him this meant that marriage contracts might be better made for brief periods (e.g. five years) rather than for one's entire life.  This discussion and the events around it got me thinking about my own relationships, and what holds them (and me) together.

I see the paradox of choice, and I think it is part of human nature.  As with other aspects of human nature, it is better dealt with than ignored.  (To ignore it is to invite it to find you unprepared, leading you to make decisions that you are likely to regret later, with the benefit of hindsight.  Personally, I like to know my enemies, including the one who dwells between my ears, and keep them close when I cannot avoid them entirely.)

To make a choice is necessarily to make oneself vulnerable (to disillusionment, disappointment, unexpected consequences, etc.), especially when the choice involves something truly momentous (as the choice to get married undoubtedly does).  But not choosing is also weak, since choices are a necessary part of life (much as intimacy is: as bad as a bad marriage is, no marriage at all might be just as bad).  How do we allow choice without letting it take us places where we do not want to go?  Historically, people create narratives that allow them to "have their cake and eat it too" -- narratives that promise future choices (maybe an eternity of them) in return for making a limiting choice here and now.  Oftentimes, these narratives seek to be prescriptive, telling people what choices are acceptable (e.g. monogamous heterosexual marriage) and what choices are not (e.g. homosexual marriage, serial monogamy facilitated by divorce, polygamy, polyamory).  These prescriptions can be helpful for folks, for reasons that I will get to in a moment, but as a result of my personal experience, I am hesitant to recommend any one of them to the entire human race as the only prescription for happiness.  To me, it seems that human happiness, generally speaking, is incoherent: different people have different ideas about happiness, such that there is no one way of life (or marriage) that guarantees it generally (for all that many different ways work with more or less success for larger or smaller groups of people: I would be miserable in a homosexual marriage, but a homosexual person wouldn't; the fact that there are more people like me and less like the homosexual does not mean that his experience is somehow "wrong" or invalid, or that he should not have the opportunity to marry his way, in my view).

Given this laissez-faire attitude toward human morality on my part, many friends wonder where my personal moral stability comes from.  How do I avoid giving in to the temptation to drop whatever I may have now and pursue more attractive options elsewhere?  Why don't I drop my allegiance to my wife the same way I dropped my allegiance to LDS church leaders?  (The short answer is that I have yet to catch her lying to me brazenly about matters of vital interest to me, but that is really just incidental.  There is a serious question here, one that deserves more than a glib answer, however en pointe.)

Confronting the collapse of my faith in men whose character supplied my (legitimate) need for moral authority as teenager was rather frightening.  As a kid, I made some moral choices because God (in the form of prophets ancient or modern) told me to, and that was the ultimate answer to all questions (the decision beyond which there was no appeal).  History shows that this kind of thinking has deep roots, with oaths before God featuring among the earliest binding contracts known to (civilized) man.  What happens when the God guaranteeing all these oaths is revealed to be a rhetorical fiction, a puppet played from the inside by some old duffers who wear the mantle of divinity with a good deal of humanity?  What happens when you realize that there is no man in the sky watching every move you make?  (Or as Plato would have Socrates ask in the Republic: what happens when you wear the ring of Gyges, a ring that makes you utterly invisible, allowing you to do anything you please without normal untoward consequences?)  In the narrative I grew up with, this event was a terrible disaster: without God as the real ground for morality, human life becomes "evil" animal hedonism.  (Remember the scripture in Mosiah 3:7, where "the natural man is an enemy to God, and is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father."  The good man must give himself up to the absolute moral authority of God or lose his goodness.)  My own descent into hedonism has not (yet) borne this narrative out, but I am constantly confronting it (in the assumptions religious believers make about me when I am indifferent toward theism, and/or in the stories I hear of and see in the lives of people around me who do value things differently as atheists than they did as religious believers).  In concrete terms, people wonder why I don't leave my wife (for example) or (at least) treat my relationship with her as casually as I do my relationship with (say) the LDS church.  Where does my moral foundation lie?  Why are promises sacred?  Are there any points at which a promise becomes non-binding, for me?  Where are those points?

It is fitting that I should answer these questions with a disquisition on pleasure, since pleasure and pain are really the heart of what they inquire about (how much pleasure are you willing to pass up to keep a promise? how much pain will you endure before breaking a promise?).  Here it is very useful to bring up the Buddhist teaching (confirmed by my personal experience) that pleasure and pain are really the same thing, a fleeting impression on the human psyche that brings mixed consequences (causing us to notice factors in our environment differently, with the result that we alter our behavior in a way loosely calculated to improve the chance that our genes survive, to add a modern biological garnish to the ancient dictum).  If I know that pleasure is pain, then I instinctively recoil from it at least as much as I spring toward it.  I love it and court it, as I must, but I also aim to keep it at a safe distance.  Rather than embrace it uncritically, drinking deep every time nature (or God or whatever is pulling the strings that make the universe dance) proffers the cup, I hang back, stealing in for a drink only when I think it is safe (judging from my own and others' experiences, in that order: my experience of myself trumps what other people tell me about themselves).  How does this kind of thinking look in real life?  How do I use it in real situations?  Let's see.

(1) How much pleasure am I willing to pass up to keep a promise?  Big pleasures come with big consequences.  Intimate relationships require time and commitment to work in a way that is sustainable and stable (as I like my pleasures to be).  When I enter into an intimate relationship with someone, a really pleasurable (and pleasant) relationship like marriage, I invest in that person.  I spend time with that person.  I talk to that person.  I think with that person.  I let that person shop for me, work for me, sign for me, even think for me (in situations where that is required).  Why would I throw that investment away merely because somebody else walks by one day with a cute rear-end (or whatever)?  That would not make sense.  It would not even be pleasurable (from my perspective: the pleasure of chasing a new romantic interest pales in comparison with the pain of losing my wife, to whom I have already devoted so much time and interest).

In my mind, the paradox of choice means that modern life is uniquely cruel to people who obsess over making the right choices (thinking that they have to find the right brand of shoes among 500, or the perfect wife or romantic partner among the population of co-eds at the local university or church or wherever).  Much of the time, the criteria we come up with to facilitate choice in situations of super-abundance are worse than useless.  We become obsessed with noise and ignore the really important information (the information that is actually relevant to our personal sense of pleasure).  Instead of taking five minutes to decide what shoes we need, going to the store, and buying those shoes, we walk into the store undecided, try on 30 pairs, buy 5, and then go home to wonder over and over again whether we should trade some of them in and/or buy some of the ones we rejected.  Instead of pursuing with gusto the romantic adventures that life thrusts upon us, we move obsessively from one partner to another, chasing our illusions of "the perfect mate" from one "failed" relationship to the next (and so on until we become Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, Newt Gingrich, or Rush Limbaugh: these are not terrible men, but I would not want to marry them--in some bizarre world where I am a heterosexual woman). In marriage, from my perspective, the noise is other people (who seem better than your spouse when you don’t know them as well). The information that really matters is how your spouse is (am I abused? am I abusive? is there something that I really need that I cannot get, something that my spouse really needs that I cannot give?).  If my marriage became impossibly bland--empty, passionless, etc.--then I would consider ending it (as much for my wife's good/pleasure as for mine: why should she be trapped in a relationship that is merely a shell of what it should be, what it once was?).  But I would never end my marriage on a whim (merely because a lady with nice parts flirted with me).  That would be decidedly unpleasant (I think).

There is something really profound lurking here, a truth that is applicable all along the depth and breadth of human experience (my own and that of other people too, as near as I can tell).  Democritus expressed this truth by saying that “the sweetest pleasures are the rarest.” While the extreme version of this is untrue, there is something solid to the idea of limiting one’s exposure to certain pleasures more than one might instinctively want to. Take fasting for example. I stopped eating three square meals a day, and suddenly maintaining a healthy weight became effortless (calorie-restriction does still work, but it feels so much easier when instead of eating three small meals every day, I get to eat one or two huge ones). Consider sex. Every now and then, my wife and I are separated for environmental reasons (she has a period, I am sick, the kids are obnoxious), and whenever this happens, our next amorous encounter registers off the charts (not that we have a bad sex life meantime, but the difference between sated-sex and famine-sex is amazing). Work is the same. I get more done, I am more creative in the office, and my physical work-outs are much more productive, when I make the effort to stay away and avoid “punching the clock” just to convince myself that I am doing something. I think these empirical realities (in my life) are important, since they represent a reality that many modern men overlook entirely (coming from a background that takes scarcity for granted and works to cultivate abundance, which was foreign and desirable to my grandfathers as it is not to me).

This leads me to an interesting dichotomy between my ideas of (i) general human happiness and (ii) particular human happiness. (i) Generally speaking, I think human happiness is better served when there are many options available for people to try.  Marry a woman (or several).  Marry a man.  Marry your dog.  The market should be as free as possible. (ii) Speaking particularly, however, I think happiness is all about eliminating options.  People generally should be maximally free to pursue their own happiness; that said, pursuing one's own happiness requires cultivating one's own garden without being too concerned about anybody else's.  Pick the method(s) that work for you, and ignore everything else.  When I examine my personal morality carefully, I am all about taking away my own choices. In a culture defined by glut, I deliberately cultivate famine (spending hours without food, days without sex, and as much time as possible not working). I do this because I find that constant glut (which my environment recommends reflexively) is not pleasant: who wants to binge all the time on endless food, sex, or work?   Not me.  Confronting my morality with complete honesty (as I wear the ring of Gyges) has taught me this lesson about myself.

(2) How much pain will I endure before breaking a promise?  Periodically, people talk about certain emotions being unlimited, invoking words like "divine love" or "compassion" or "grace" to point to the idea that the universe always gives you another chance (even if that comes only in another life).  While I see some utility in this idea, I confess I am not really convinced.  If you rape me, I might forgive you, but I am never going to put myself deliberately in your company again.  I am not going to make myself vulnerable (no matter what some god says).  Our relationship is (for this life at least) permanently altered.  If you lie to me about things that are vitally important to me, then I am never going to trust you with my dearest secrets.  Not because I don't love you.  Not because I don't believe that you might still have some good qualities.  Not because I think you should die horribly in some tragic accident.  I just don't have the stomach for making myself deliberately vulnerable to somebody I have good reason not to trust.  I don't set myself up to fail.  If a relationship is not working, then I think the understanding on which that relationship exists needs to be re-examined, and it may end up needing to change.  That is acceptable.  Change happens.

My wife has discussed behavior that might lead her to end our relationship.  If I were abusive or sexually promiscuous (chasing skirts like better men before me), then she would step out of the marriage without any guilt.  I think this is wise.  Cultivating a good marriage is the right thing to do (because it is most pleasant, in my experience), and ditching a bad marriage is the right thing to do (because it is most unpleasant, in my vicarious experience).  The reality that the healthiness of my relationships depends on constant care becomes very obvious in this paradigm, which will not let me off the hook with the specious plea: "Well, you signed up for this crap when you took me at the altar, so take it--the good along with the bad!"  Instead of settling down to this sort of complacency, I am expected to court my wife every day, reminding her that I am really a pleasant person to have around.  She could end our involvement at any moment, and my awareness of that fact keeps me from taking her utterly for granted.

In summary, I have found that hedonism is not altogether dehumanizing (in the bad sense).  Now that I look back, it seems to me that I was always a hedonist, even when I was religious.  The difference between me as I am and me as I was is that I now understand my relationship to pleasure much better.  I see how I react to pleasure, how I value it, and I have learned to minimize the sorts of behavior associated with it that tend to bring unpleasant consequences (as I perceive them: others are welcome to decide differently, provided that they do not dictate to me unilaterally from their experience just as I would never presume to dictate to them).  This does not mean that I value pleasure perfectly now, that I never make mistakes, but I do like to think (and it seems true) that I learn better from my mistakes now than I did five years ago.  One benefit that comes from partaking of the forbidden fruit is that you really do become wise. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Wise Words about Human Ethics

Here are some excellent reflections on morality (specifically sexuality, but as the author points out, sex is not really special).

Friday, August 31, 2012

Funny Business

These thoughts occurred to me as I interacted with some people arguing that the solution to current economic woes is government intervention (1) to regulate fraud out of existence, (2) to create more jobs (e.g. "build more infrastructure"), and (3) to fix income disparity (e.g. with a "minimum guaranteed income").

(1) People are always going to be initiating fraud and/or making bad business decisions.  Unfortunately, that doesn't stop when they get elected, take an oath, and enter public service.  The fundamental problem with more government oversight as the solution to fraud or bad business decisions is that government workers are just people too (whether fraudsters or simply well-meaning fools).  Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  Because of the revolving door that Sorkin writes about (connecting the world of big business to the world of big government), the same bureaucrats (the Henry Paulsens, Tim Geithners, and Ben Bernankes) are always running the show, whether they happen to draw a paycheck from private profiteering or public service at any given moment in time.

The recent American housing crisis provides a useful illustration of this.  Proponents of more government regulation as a solution to our financial difficulties tell us that the crisis was caused by evil banks using dishonest tricks to make excessive profits.  There is definitely some truth to this explanation, but it misses an important detail: Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were creations of the federal government, which demanded from them a policy like the one that they adopted (to our ruin) -- a policy that would allow and even encourage people to buy houses (give it up for the American dream!) regardless of their (in)ability to pay.  Now, would-be government saviors want us to forget their role in causing the mess (which they are blaming on private industry, conveniently overlooking that the private industry was just doing what they told it to).  This classic dodge is the same trick the LDS church uses to avoid being responsible for any of the uncomfortable things its prophets do or say.  Apologists for the Fed argue in effect that the recent financial crisis reveals our federal overseers speaking as fallible men (when they adopt policies that history reveals to be idiotic), but that we must all nevertheless continue to follow them unswervingly as though they were infallible prophets.  This naked appeal to authority without responsibility leaves me profoundly unconvinced.

The problem of government irresponsibility is a tough one.  Unfortunately, the existence of the Federal Reserve (as presently constituted) means that much of the government's (immense) economic power is entrusted to the jurisdiction of people who owe me (personally) even less than the periodically elected clowns-in-chief who answer to me as one person among 300 million (which in practical terms means that they couldn't care less what I have to say until I have at least a million friends: good luck getting a million people to agree on something that isn't hopelessly incoherent and/or stupid).  If Barack Obama doesn't really mind what I think about my money (any more than George Bush did), Ben Bernanke couldn't care less: he is not responsible to me at all, in any way, shape, or form.  I resent it when his decisions (to inflate the currency, to bail out businesses that I see as bad for society) control my purse more effectively than I do.  I don't make much money.  I am not very important to society.  But that doesn't mean that I don't have desires, that I don't believe in causes, that I don't want my two cents going to good things (things that I approve) rather than bad things (things I disapprove).  I resent it when the meager surplus that I have worked hard for and would like to invest in small businesses in Africa (or whatever) gets siphoned off by Ben Bernanke to keep Bear Stearns or GM alive.  And there is very little I can do about it except rant on the Internet.  (At least we have that!)  When people come to me arguing that people like me should be in favor of more government regulation, that it would actually solve all the problems I experience, I'm not sure how to take it: "Just give the hangman a little more rope!  A few more inches and it'll all be over."  Yeah, right.

(2) Now for those folks who think we could solve all problems by hiring people indefinitely to just "build infrastructure."  The need for infrastructure is finite, as is the material basis for infrastructure in geographical space and physical raw materials.  We don't have room or materials for endless roads (to nowhere), endless schools (to house imaginary students), endless buildings (to be occupied by corporations that don't exist, serving needs for which there is no market).  The fallacy that we can just grow our way out of fundamental weaknesses in our economic system is an enduring one.  It shows up throughout history (as Marx's theory of value to give one notable example: unfortunately, the fact that I spend hours laboring over something does not mean that it automatically has value that someone else must recognize).  In the past, back when there were still acres of untapped wilderness waiting to be exploited, it made more sense: if you can't make it in the city, move to the country (the rainforest, the mountains, the jungle, the bush, whatever, and become a settler "building infrastructure").  But today, in a global economy where every nook and cranny of the world is being explored and exploited (more or less), it is patently absurd (especially when we add the expectation that settlers in the bush live with the ephemeral comforts and luxuries of civilization as though these were some sort of human right).

In this day and age, "building infrastructure" often means destroying valuable resources to make a quick buck.  One illustrative example would be Brazil cutting down rainforests to make fancy furniture and biofuels: the model of eternal economic growth pushes Brazil to exploit the forest (and destroy it) rather than leave it alone (and let it be a source of values and utility that cannot be turned into GDP to fund the entitled lifestyle expected by civilization).  Civilization labors under an historical naivete which assumes that all economic problems can be solved with increased production and consumption: it does not know the meaning of austerity; its vision of wealth is fundamentally skewed toward growth and waste as necessary, even good, things.  They are not.

(3) The problem with guaranteeing everyone a fixed income is that value in society (like value everywhere) is relative.  Prices fluctuate.  More money in more hands means that everything costs more.  Dictators have been fighting this reality for a long time (a famous antique example would be Diocletian's Edict on Prices, which failed as every attempt before and after it that I am aware of has failed).  Inflation is not a viable solution to ebbing liquidity, and increasing production is only a viable solution as long as we retain materials and space to exploit: when we tap out those resources, the Tooth Fairy does not come by to bless us with prosperity (even if we have PhDs in economics, which mean about as much to me as PhDs in astrology or voodoo, to be honest: Long-Term Capital Management was founded by bona fide, certified experts in the field).

Given the reality of our situation, it just seems wrong to me that Ben Bernanke retains the right to co-opt me as some kind of human resource.  I don't mind recognizing real risks in the world and collaborating with others to meet those risks (as best we can: some of them are inevitably going to rock us, with unpleasant results; c'est la vie).  But to me, collaboration means that I get a meaningful say in what my contribution is.  I pick where my two cents go.  I place my bets and let nature do her worst.  I hate it when "doing my bit for society" means giving up all (or most) of my agency to the Ben Bernankes of the world, renouncing my role as a decision-maker so that some bureaucrat in authority can use my money to bail out his friends (Bear Stearns, GM) while my friends get rail-roaded.  I admit that my own knowledge of economics is limited and imperfect.  I admit that I make bad decisions, but I cannot say that the bureaucrats appear any more capable.  Try as I have to catch them saving the world (as they always claim to be doing), all I ever see when I pull back the curtain is them using me as human capital to save their own fat ***es.  Punks.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Heroic Resignation: Making Peace with Uncertainty and Suffering

Win Blevins.  Stone Song: A Novel About the Life of Crazy Horse.  New York: Forge, 1995.  ISBN: 0812533690.  

One last quote from this novel (from page 366):
Crazy Horse shrugged.  Yes, yes, there was white fire coming at him, and the hands of his own people were grabbing at him from behind, and he might be hurt.  He felt the rightness of it.  He wanted to survive, but maybe he wouldn't.  He would ride and feel the rightness under him like a fine, spirited pony.
Life is uncertain.  I am weak.  I cannot prepare against all contingencies.  I cannot answer all questions or solve all problems (in my own life, let alone the lives of other people).  But I can meet them with dignity.  Win or lose, I can strike a heroic pose.  I can do my best work, and the result be whatever it is going to be.  I can tell the truth as I see it, and let the cards fall.  That is all I ask of the world, because that is really all it is able to give me.

Inasmuch as my journey to this realization has come through being "betrayed" by others and by my own unrealistic expectations over the years, I am actually grateful -- yes, grateful -- to have been betrayed.  The closest I can come to forgiving others (especially church leaders) and myself is to reflect that our foolish actions have had at least one happy accident: I understand life better because of them.  The bitter has taught me to prize the sweet.  I don't know how it could be any other way: to avoid one path of bitterness is really just to fall into another one.  As bitter paths go, modern Mormonism seems like a really nice one (better than many!).  So I don't regret being a Mormon.  There are still many things in Mormonism that I like.  I don't want to erase my past, any more than I wish to get out of my present: I cannot imagine living without either.

As painful and as real as my soul-wounds are sometimes, they are not utterly awful.  As the Buddha recognized, all emotion is suffering.  You cannot have pleasure without pain, and every pain comes tinged with some kind of pleasure -- a palliative to help us bear what we must in order to survive.  I see this and accept it.

The Nature of Language

An acquaintance expressed some frustration that a girl he knows identifies herself as a lesbian while pursuing romantic relationships with men.  This made me think, and my first thoughts are on this page.

From my perspective, language is demonstrative. It points at something: sometimes it points badly (in a way that other people have real difficulty following). If you use language too cryptically, I am left in the dark when it comes to seeing your meaning out there the real world as I experience it. You say words like 'lesbian' and I am not sure that you mean what I would mean if I used those words. I sit back and wait for more data from you (language or behavior) before deciding what you are getting at.

There is an interesting problem here: sometimes, especially when dealing with complex phenomena (like sexuality or the economy), we have a tendency to oversimplify. Words are part of that oversimplification. We use them to refer in a general way to specific circumstances that we are familiar with. Thus, one person says 'lesbian' when she means to say something like 'woman attracted to women but also to certain men, i.e. a woman like me.' Maybe for her the point is that she is not entirely straight, and 'lesbian' is the first word that comes to her mind when she wants to put a tag on that. If you listen to her carefully, notice how she uses the word (e.g. what contexts call it forth from her), and avoid projecting your own idea of lesbianism into her idea of lesbianism, then you can understand her (well enough not to be completely clueless every time she speaks about her lesbianism). 

But there is this thing out there known as logic, a thing which maintains such unnatural (and in complex contexts, frankly absurd) idea that A ('lesbian') cannot be not-A ('likes sex with men'). 'Free market' cannot be 'protectionist racket.' 'Too big to fail' cannot be 'too big not to fail.' And so on. Since antiquity, there have been people who thought that words were more real than other phenomena -- that words allow us to deal directly with pure truth, unclouded by pesky empirical data (which is full of logical fallacies and paradoxes, unlike the perfect world academics have historically imagined -- a world in which A is never not-A).  The great power of words is that they generalize, making individual experiences shareable across time and space.  This is also their great weakness, especially when they are used to generalize a particular experience that many people have never had (e.g. being a lesbian the way my friend's acquaintance is) -- and one word is used all by itself to define that experience for everyone, everywhere (logically, A is never not-A anywhere, so we should be able to invoke it as the same thing anywhere, in any context -- people who see problems with this are just fools attracted to 'nuance,' 'paradox,' 'ambiguity,' and other namby-pamby 'unscientific' and illogical things).

But reality is beyond concepts. Things like lesbianism, capitalism, and such resist reduction to simple formula. These words point: they don't define. In the real world, people aren't either homosexual or heterosexual: we exist on a spectrum. And capitalism isn't either the best thing that ever happened to society or the worst: human social behavior, like human sexual behavior, exists on a spectrum. As long as we use language to point at material stuff that historically resists reduction to real dichotomy (good/evil, positive/negative, up/down, gay/straight, A/not-A), we are speaking descriptively, not definitively (unless we want to join the prophets who speak as morons -- prophets who exist in and out of the LDS church). We need to realize the artificiality of our language: it is emphatically not prior to the phenomena that call it forth. Reality is bigger than our reductive efforts to define it (historically: maybe one day, God will come down to earth in the form of a great scientist and give us words that define all things perfectly; it is a cool thought, and I really doubt it). 

Friday, August 10, 2012


Win Blevins.  Stone Song: A Novel About the Life of Crazy Horse.  New York: Forge, 1995.  ISBN: 0812533690.  

Since my disaffection, several people have expressed concern to me about "the leaders I choose to follow" since turning my back on Mormon prophets.  This concern is profoundly troubling to me, mostly because I don't believe in following leaders.  I am my own person.  If I do something, then I am the one doing it: I have reasons of my own for doing it, and I am personally answerable for any consequences that result.  I don't do anything merely because someone else told me to.  Even when I act under duress, I am doing the best I can for myself, from my own personal perspective.  For me, that is what being a moral person is.  I cultivate my own spirit, and scrupulously respect the right of other people to do likewise -- even when the spirit that they cultivate is very different from my own.

Just as I don't take unilateral dictation from someone else, I refuse to impose it.  I even give my baby sons choices: there are some things that they cannot do because they are not capable (like use the oven), but among the things that they can do, they have freedom.  I am not going to force them to play cars when they would rather be reading about Calvin and Hobbs.  Respect doesn't mean that they never disagree or talk back to me.  (My wife and I actually like to get them talking, since that often distracts them from acting out in ways that might be dangerous or bothersome.)  Moral education, in my view, is learning to behave oneself without external control: the perfect man is the one who makes and is answerable for his own decisions.  He doesn't hurt other people and then tell them they get no apology because he was simply "doing God's will." 

To my mind, it is acceptable to invoke the will of God as your reason for personal decisions, but it is no excuse for imposing yourself on other people.  I can choose to wear a burkha because I feel that is the will of God for me, but I have no right to make you wear one because of my feeling (which you may not even share!).  People who go around complaining that society is going to hell in a handbasket because we don't all wear burkhas with them (or shop at Whole Foods or vote Republican or Democrat or whatever) get on my nerves.  If you believe in burkhas (or Whole Foods, or the GOP, or the Democratic Party, or Scientology, or Mormonism, or atheism, or socialism, or anything similar), then by all means live your beliefs.  As long as you respect my right to live my beliefs (which are different!), then we are cool.  We can even be friends.  But I have a hard time being friends with people who think that friendship means one of us forcing the other to change his habits for no other reason than "God told me so" (so you think God never talks to me, is that it? you get to speak with God for everyone, and I cannot even get him to talk to me for myself? forget it, kid: I'm a grown man, and I don't need you to change my diapers).

There is a great passage in Blevins' account of Crazy Horse that captures the contrast between moral autonomy (freedom) and moral dependence (slavery).  Crazy Horse's uncle Spotted Tail is describing how the whites (wasicu) see the world (pp. 124-125, 126-127):
"The worst is, they have a terrible blindness, these wasicu.  They do not understand choice."

He was referring to a most sacred subject, and none of his hearers needed any explanation -- no Lakota who had even started on the path to adulthood did.  A human being had skan, something-that-moves, spiritual vitality.  The force of life itself [God?] gave the person skan [agency?] when he or she was born.  It also gave him choice, and through choice he or she grew into the man or woman he or she became.  Skan was the motive power, choice of direction.

A Lakota had a choice between good and evil, the red road and the black road, between what made life beautiful and what made it ugly.  He or she had help in making choices -- the quiet voice that is in everyone, the spirit helper (usually in the form of an animal), what he or she saw when crying for a vision, personal medicine, prayer, ceremonies performed alone or with others.  Still, choice remained, inviolate.

Whether your way was to paint yourself in a certain manner, to wear something of iron or never touch iron, or whether you should charge the enemy first or simply swell the ranks, that was your nature, your vision, the route of your spirit on the earth.  Other Lakota would respect it.  None would try to coerce it or even influence it.  None would mock it.  Your understanding was the essence of you, and to follow it was your sacred choice.

All this was so fundamental as to not need saying.  So what could it mean that an entire people did not understand choice?  It was almost unthinkable.  Were they human beings?

"Among the whites some think they can see and choose for others."  It was so stunning that Spotted Tail just let the words hang in the lodge, heavy and oppressive.  "Then comes what you would expect.  They quarrel with one another not only about small things, but about the biggest.  They fight and kill each other.  Instead of respecting another man's way, they stop at nothing to get him to adopt their way.  Like the Mormons [!]."

The Lakota knew the U.S. government this very summer was sending an army against the Mormons at the big salty lake to make the Mormons live like other wasicu, especially not to take more than one wife.  Incomprehensible.

"They hate our way," said Spotted Tail.  His voice was weary now and faint.  "Their deepest desire -- believe me about this -- is to change our way of living.  Their deepest desire is to make us like them.  I swear it" ...
A-i-i-i, surely they were impossible to understand.  You might fight your enemy -- that had respect in it.  You might even kill him -- respect again.  But to do what the wasicu did: afflict your enemy with disease, pen him up, starve him, and then rescue his body on the condition that he surrender his spirit ... Incomprehensible.  Not the way of men.

But he [Crazy Horse's father] believed Spotted Tail.  Everything about his brother-in-law sang conviction.

What a peculiar people, the wasicu.  They had a certain genius.  They could make things -- wagons, wheels, guns, knives, watches, far-seeing glasses, and much more.  But these were only things.  In return for them ["Let's go shopping!"] the wasicu wanted you to relinquish your own genius, which was not of things but of the spirit.

From the beginning, said the oldest men, what the wasicu wanted was your spirit.  From the beginning, their real desire was for the blackrobes [mantles of authority!] to gouge spirit out of you, like a man scraping seeds out of a gourd.  Then they would fill the empty gourd with their religion.  [Religious freedom means you shut up and wear my burkha!] 
There is such irony in this passage when you consider that so many Mormons today are eager to impose on others the same way other Americans imposed on us back in the day.  Even in the nineteenth century, Mormonism puts a high rhetorical value on agency, the ability of individual people to make choices without coercion.  The only problem is that we also put a high rhetorical value on following the prophet: historically, following the prophet is more important to Mormons than being true to oneself.  For me, this is pure bullcrap.  There is no moral problem I can think of that would not become easier to solve if people took more responsibility for themselves and gave less to leaders.  Grow up and go your own way.  Leaders are for babies.  Grown-ups have friends, associates, people they respect (and even look up to), but they don't have leaders.  Thomas S. Monson is not my leader.  Barack Obama is not my leader.  Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche is not my leader.  Christopher Hitchens is not my leader.  This does not mean that I hate these gentlemen (or all the good that they may stand for: quite the contrary!), but I am long past offering them the total devotion of a helpless little boy desperate for a superhero.  For years, I did my very best to believe in superheroes.  It didn't work very well for me, and I am very grateful to have outgrown it (finally!).

I do not adopt a fixed posture toward life anymore.  I don't have final answers.  I don't speak for other people (until they say I do, and even then I do not answer for their behavior: they are responsible for themselves).  And on the other side of the coin, no one else speaks for me (until I claim their words for myself: even then, I am still answerable for my behavior, for my reception and interpretation of the words that someone else has uttered).  I am not standing firm with this band or that one -- with this religion or that one, with this university or that one, with this company or that one, with this philosophy or that one.  I don't believe in leaders.  I am a ronin -- a wolf who goes his own way.  I am all done playing the sheep, no matter who the shepherd is.  God himself cannot separate me from mine integrity (unless he kills me, which is what it would take -- for me as for Crazy Horse: even so, I will die true to myself and to the truth I believe in).

Taming the Beast Within: Aftermath

Win Blevins.  Stone Song: A Novel About the Life of Crazy Horse.  New York: Forge, 1995.  ISBN: 0812533690

After Little Big Horn, Crazy Horse surrenders to the United States (whose representatives consistently lie to him and his people, not because they themselves are malicious or incapable of truth-telling, but because they are answerable to politicians in Washington who don't care about native Americans enough to treat them like human beings).  Crazy Horse goes off alone whenever he can, holding small fossils (inyan) and "listening" to them (i.e. counting his breath and being very still, as though he were trying to hear the stone creatures speak).  He makes peace with himself, with the world (his white enemies and native "friends"), and with Hawk.  Then he is betrayed by his friends, and killed.

I'll be honest: beating God and his self-proclaimed spokesmen at their own game felt great.  But the joy was not unmixed: it never is.  I lost a lot of things, a lot of possibilities and hopes that I had cherished for a long time.  Innocence.  Trust.  The ability to take people around me at their word, especially people I don't know personally -- people who work for faceless bureaucracies who pretend to have my best interest at heart while they do whatever they do (which may or may not end up hurting me badly).  I was hurt inside, and I still carry some of that hurt today: it comes out whenever I listen to politicians or church leaders (in any church), whenever people want me to sign on the dotted line for something too good to be true (a job, an apartment, health insurance, etc.).  I don't trust people (in general: it is easy to make exceptions for friends and family whom I deal with personally and have a history with).  I feel like the world is out to seduce me (all institutional friendship is fake) and rape me (we own you; you owe us; shut up and take it).  That is the price I paid for learning to trust myself.

Another hard thing has been explaining myself to other people, particularly other Mormons whom I respect and love, without coming across as hostile or deranged.  While I might be slightly crazy, I hope people (especially my Mormon friends) believe me when I tell them that I really don't judge them for being different from me -- for staying in the church as I leave, or loving it unreservedly as I manifestly cannot.  My journey belongs to me, not to anyone else.  Hawk speaks to me, not to you: you have a different animal spirit, and the counsel it gives you will not be the counsel that Hawk gives me.

The way I see things now, speaking still in the language Blevins uses to talk about the old Lakota, each one of us grows up with a different spirit, a different animal inside.  It is our inalienable, personal responsibility to cultivate that spirit, to tame that animal.  Other people can help us (the way the medicine men help Crazy Horse), but they cannot tell us who we are or what we have to do with ourselves.  They can teach good principles (respect for others and for oneself), but they cannot tell us how to implement them in every situation that we will be in.  That kind of specific guidance comes from looking inward: no outside force (whether man or nature or God) can give it to us.  This insight, which comes across strong throughout Blevins' account of Crazy Horse, resonates well with Mormonism (as I experienced it outside of church, in my own religious conversion, for example): I still believe in personal revelation.  (I just don't believe in institutional revelation: while churches may be people legally, on paper, they are not intelligent the way you or I or the man across the street is.  Every man must be his own prophet: I cannot speak to his spirit animal for him.  I cannot absolve him of responsibility for whatever he does to quiet that animal: he is answerable for himself, no matter who tells him otherwise.)

When the young spirit is struggling to be born in a person, he naturally needs something different.  He needs to go out into the wilderness.  He needs to cry for visions.  He needs to feel the universe talking to him, to find a path that his feet can walk without stumbling into chaos.  Since my showdown with God, it seems to me that how we walk matters more than the particular path.  Let me illustrate with a personal example.  My father grew up outside of Mormonism.  By his own confession, he arrived on the doorstep on manhood an atheist, and he emphatically didn't like where he saw that road leading him.  Something in his spirit cried out against that path, so he turned from it, and became a Mormon.  He could have gone back to the faith of his father (Methodism, Presbyterianism), but he didn't.  He needed something different.  He listened to his spirit, followed where it led him, and has been happy as a Mormon ever since.  There is nothing wrong with that, in my view.  Indeed, my own experience mirrors his rather exactly: I took the same road out of (institutional) Mormonism that he took out of (institutional) Protestantism (which for him had come to mean atheism: the religion of his fathers left him cold, uninspired, dead).  Some people look at our stories and marvel at how different we are, but to me what is more striking is how we are the same.  Confronted with the same problem (growing up in a world full of danger and uncertainty), we came up with the same solution (follow the spirit!) and left the religion of our fathers -- not necessarily because we despise it utterly (my dad recognizes good things in Protestantism as I recognize good things in Mormonism, and Protestantism too, for that matter), but because it did not speak to us.  At the end of the day, what makes us good or bad men is not what path we choose (whether Mormonism, Protestantism, or some other -ism), but how we walk it.  My dad has walked the Mormon path well, I think: when I think of what he has done, how he has managed his personal life and his interaction with the larger community (Mormon and not), I am proud.  He is a good man.  He treats other people fairly.  He takes care of himself: he listens to his spirit, and is very careful not to hurt it -- or impose it unduly on other people.  I still want to be like my dad, even if my path through life is not the Mormon one (or at least, not the same Mormon path that he took).

As a result of my experiences, life for me is more about process than results.  The story of Crazy Horse is a story of triumph, on my reading, not because of its result (Crazy Horse is betrayed and dies murdered), but because of the way that Crazy Horse conducts himself (the greatest heroes know that they cannot guarantee success: the most they can do is live with dignity, no matter what happens to them; if that means dying at the hands of murderers, then they die with dignity).  I spent years sacrificing my dignity in an attempt to get better results -- results that were always put off to some indefinite future (in the eternities, after this life), while I remained hurt and humiliated in the present, lacking even a shred of self-respect to shield me from the all-seeing eye of God (who is emphatically "not a tame lion").  Distancing myself from the LDS church is about reclaiming that dignity, which I need in order to survive, from leaders (whose counsel has hurt me more than it has helped me) and God (who has been content to let me fend for myself, caring for me individually the same way the wakinyan care for Crazy Horse).

For me, researching Buddhism and practicing meditation have been functional equivalents to Crazy Horse's inyan.  When I chant Tibetan prayers and sit still in shamatha, I feel the peace I first encountered reading the scriptures on my own as a young boy.  I let go of the angst and the anger of my adolescence.  I forget that I am angry with the world -- with myself, with other people (including LDS church leaders), with God.  I forget my obsession with finding "the one truth" about everything, resting secure in the perception that reality is beyond concepts: the universe is bigger than my ability to understand it, bigger than any theological or scientific model I could come up with to illustrate its infinity.  For a few moments, I stop trying to understand the world.  I just sit with it, looking at it, marveling at it, noticing my emotional reaction to it, and letting it go its own way (as it always has: the wakinyan wait for no man, and God's ways are not our ways, pace all the prophets who have claimed otherwise since the dawn of history).  I am still a very religious person.  If anything, I am actually more religious since I became what some would call an atheist.  I am also more rational (that may not be saying too much), and (as my wife tells me) calmer and easier to get along with.  Some of my Mormon friends have a hard time believing this, but it is really true: my path is not your path, and the medicine that makes you feel better may make me feel worse.  This doesn't mean that we cannot be friends: we just cannot live vicariously through each other; when I am sick, I cannot expect you to take my medicine, and vice versa.

We need each other.  I need friends and family who take an interest in me -- and you need me to be there taking an interest in you, too.  But we cannot help each other if being together means poisoning one of us.  The good news is that it doesn't have to.  My dad gets along very well with his non-Mormon family, even though they don't take his Mormon medicine for themselves.  We can respect each other and love each other, even if we aren't all on the same medicine.  We agree on the important stuff (respect for others and for oneself): the rest of it -- the theology, the doctrine, the little rules and regulations guiding discretional behavior -- is just window-dressing.  I don't despise you, or the world, or God, merely because I have a cup of coffee every now and then.  And I don't feel threatened when you pray, or read scriptures, or hang pictures of Jesus on the walls of your home.  (It's your home!)  You can even quote leaders of the church approvingly without getting my goat, as long as you refrain from saying that I am evil for withholding allegiance from them (or quoting Christopher Hitchens approvingly when he says something I agree with).  We need each other, and we need each other to be honest.  I put my relationship with you above any institutional relationship I have (or will ever have), and I hope you can say the same for me (though I will do my best to be understanding if you can't).  As the Lakota would say, "Mitakuye oyasin" ("We are all related").